Defense to Fail Plays Too Big on Chet Holmgren

Chet Holmgren is the most polarizing prospect in the 2022 NBA draft. To some talent evaluators, he looks like the best player available; to others, he doesn’t even belong in the consensus top three. As the center position continues to evolve and adapt to the modern NBA, Holmgren, a 7-footer with guard skills, might be just the big man teams are searching for. And while he still has his doubters, and will until he proves himself in the NBA, all the numbers and highlights point to one certain strength: Holmgren’s defense is so impressive that he cannot fail.

The NBA were dominated by the big wing, a new breed of big man currently rules the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have combined to win the past four MVP awards, and that pair and Joel Embiid went 1-2-3 in this year’s voting. But none of them reached the conference finals, raising questions, yet again, about the role of big men on contenders. (Of course, all three were also suffering from roster weirdness outside their control, from costly injuries to Khris Middleton, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr., to the Ben Simmons–James Harden fiasco in Philadelphia.) But even with that playoff setback, the 2022 postseason also reinforced one element of big man necessity: All four conference finalists rated better on defense than offense in the regular season, and the two teams to reach the Finals also boasted the top two defenses in the league. And what’s the most important tenet of NBA defense? Protecting the rim. Enter Holmgren, the league’s next shutdown defender. At Gonzaga last season, Holmgren blocked 12.6 percent of opposing 2-point attempts, per KenPom, which ranked 10th in the country and first among Kevin O’Connor’s top 30 draft prospects. And Holmgren wasn’t just bullying overmatched weaklings in the West Coast Conference. His block rate against teams rated in KenPom’s national top 100 was 12.4 percent, essentially the same as his overall rate. On a per-game basis, Holmgren posted an average of 3.7 blocks across all his games, and 3.7 blocks when he faced top-100 opponents.

The other players at the top of this draft don’t come close in comparison. While Jabari Smith Jr. and Paolo Banchero both check in at 6-foot-10, conceivably allowing them to operate as bigs in the NBA, their college block rates were only 3.8 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively. Holmgren is the only member of the trio who can anchor a defense.

Holmgren’s college performance also compares favorably to the 24 big men with college stats who have been drafted in the top five since 2002. (That’s the first year with detailed player data from KenPom; this count doesn’t include players without any NCAA stats or James Wiseman, who played only three games for Memphis. We’re defining “big men” here as players who’ve spent at least 25 percent of their NBA minutes at center, according to Basketball-Reference’s positional designations.) Out of that group of 24, the only players with a better block rate in their final college seasons than Holmgren are Jaren Jackson Jr., Anthony Davis, and Greg Oden; close behind Holmgren are Hasheem Thabeet, Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

A meaningful indicator for Holmgren’s NBA future: As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has written, block rate translates from college to the pros better than any other statistic. And in this sample, that relationship mostly holds, too. For instance, on the other end of the list, only five bigs in this sample had a college block rate below 5 percent: Marvin Bagley III, Thomas Robinson, Drew Gooden, Cody Zeller, and Jahlil Okafor. Bigs who can’t protect the rim in college don’t go on to succeed in the NBA. To be fair, the list of high-block college bigs does not provide a perfect NBA hit rate: Persistent injuries derailed Oden’s career, and Thabeet is one of this century’s great draft whiffs. But there’s also a massive chasm between the rest of Holmgren’s game beyond his shot blocking, and the rest of Thabeet’s. Holmgren possesses mobility that the heavy-footed Thabeet never had, and his offensive potential is immensely higher.